Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

Samuel Bagenstos On The Mistaken Decision To Jail Kim Davis

Over at The New Republic Samuel Bagenstos offers some spot-on analysis of the decision to jail Kim Davis, ” the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who defied a U.S. Federal Court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” and concludes:

To many observers…the drama is the point. By making a prominent example of those who obstinately refuse to comply with federal-court orders, they believe, we send a strong message that no individual is above the law. But what is the lesson courts are teaching in these cases: that the constitutional principle of equal citizenship is a basic commitment, or simply that judges are powerful people who, like parents, are not to be messed with? Sometimes, basic constitutional principles cannot be enforced without drama; without the 101st Airborne, the Little Rock schools would not have been desegregated. But federal judges should always be focused on vindicating the rights of those who invoke their jurisdiction. If the judges can vindicate those rights without demanding an ostentatious show of submission to their authority, they should do so.

I agree with Bagenstos: the real issue here is not Davis’ stance, it is the denial of legal rights to same-sex couples. Theirs is the story worth covering; Davis is merely fodder for mockery. (And sadly, too much of it is about her looks, her multiple marriages, and her adulterous life. The hypocrisy of the publicly religious is an old and well-worn joke; the marriage of that brand of humor with sexism and misogyny ensures a deeply unedifying discourse around this issue that only serves to obscure its relevant details.)

Judges cannot be expected to think too deeply about their participation in political theater and how their rulings and orders can be made to perform on its stage. Some, of course, are more self-aware about this possibility for co-optation than others. The judge who jailed Kim Davis was, presumably, not a member of the Left or the Right in his capacity as a judge, and thus cannot be castigated for having handed the Religious Right its latest hobby horse, ridden by its latest hero. But there is a great deal of wisdom in Bagenstos’ claim that from a jurisprudential perspective, one committed to revealing in each ruling the sinews of the legal, political, and pragmatic principles at play, the right thing to do in this case was to affirm constitutional principles of equal citizenship and not the power of the courts to compel obedience.

The former kind of ruling immediately forces a conversation about the rights and claims of citizenship, about the basic promise of a republic–remember, ‘res publica’, a nation of laws, equality before the law, the greatest political and moral deliverance of the modern, post-empire era; the latter merely brings us to face with the oldest, crudest forms of legal positivism, that the law serves as a cloak for the supreme power of a sovereign entity, which can enforce its decrees by crude force, handcuffs, and detainment. A conversation about the former would have shone the spotlight of bigotry and hypocrisy on Davis; the latter let her claim it as her due for heroism.  A tour of the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even a book contract await her.

Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.) 

Ross Douthat is Feeling Sorry for Bigots

Ross Douthat doth protest too much:

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.

I have news for you, Ross: you are being self-pitying. This bemoaning a straightforward victory for common-sense–the vetoing of Arizona’s benighted SB1062–is a particularly pathetic exercise . An entire Op-Ed to tell us bigots are on the run, and will be ‘forced’ to do so?

What makes this response [to Arizona’s benighted SB1062] particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

This is sophistry. Call a spade a spade; it’s “carving out protections for bigotry.”

If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job.

What would really help is supporters for traditional marriage renting a clue and reading a book or two about marriage’s historical origins and its placement within the political economy of society, its role in the subjugation of women and the enforcement of patriarchy. Then perhaps this utterly profane institution will be demoted from the ranks of the sacred and take its rightful place among other social customs, each with its own historical origin, each rooted in human needs, and each serving very particular ideologies. Also: why not replace “traditional marriage” above with “the bigoted exclusion of gays from social rituals”?

Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Here are the exceedingly simple terms of the surrender: stop being bigoted assholes; stop feeling sorry for yourself.

William Pfaff on the Indispensability of Clerical Leadership

In reviewing Garry WillsWhy Priests? A Failed Tradition (‘Challenge to the Church,’ New York Review of Books, 9 May 2013), William Pfaff writes:

How does a religion survive without structure and a self-perpetuating leadership? The practice of naming bishops to lead the Church in various Christian centers has existed since apostolic times. Aside from the questions of doctrinal authority and leadership in worship, there are inevitable practical problems of livelihood, shelter, and finance, propagation of the movement, relations with political authority, and so forth. Clerical organization seems to me the pragmatic and indeed inevitable solution to the problem of religious and other spontaneous communities that wish to survive the death of their founders or charismatic leaders.

These are interesting and revealing assertions. Pfaff assumes that ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘organized religion’; from this premise follow the rest of his conclusions. Pfaff does not indicate what he takes to be the extension of ‘spontaneous communities’; presumably these would include–as ‘charismatic leaders’ would seem to indicate–cults of all stripes. It might be that for Pfaff what distinguishes a ‘spontaneous community’ or a cult–as the early Christians would have been so regarded–from religions is more a matter of their endurance and organization than their content.  Two ‘spontaneous communities’ then, for Pfaff, could be similar in theistic and doctrinal, especially eschatological, content, but only the one with the requisite organization and endurance would count as a religion. A cult flowers briefly and dies out; a religion endures.

Pfaff’s conflation of ‘religion’ with ‘organized religion’ suggests that religions are properly thought of as organizations of sufficient complexity–in social, economic and political dimensions–to necessarily require some form of binding, cohesion and direction by ‘leadership’. Tantalizingly enough, we are not told how such a leadership is to be formed or selected from among the ranks of the followers; its ‘legitimacy’ to command, direct, and regulate its followers is left as an open question. (Pfaff does not address the issue of whether the survival of such an entity is desirable or not for the society that plays host to it.) But maybe not; is it the case that the legitimacy of the priesthood is derived entirely from its indispensability? A sort of ‘sans moi le deluge‘ argument, if you will.

This analysis of the necessity of clergies for the maintenance and propagation of religion also suggests leadership could be contested; rival contenders could stake their claims based on their alternative strategies for the continued flourishing of the religion.  This is not unheard of in organized religions; the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam dates back to a succession dispute, which even if not argued for on precisely these grounds, was still the kind that would be entailed by Pfaff’s claims of the indispensability of leadership.

So an interesting picture of organized religion emerges from Pffaf’s claims: its very survival relies on the creation of a space which could play host to a species of political dispute; this survival also requires ‘finance,’ ‘propagation’ and ‘relations with political authority.’ In short, it must be a political actor itself in the society in which it is embedded.

At the very least, this would seem to indicate organized religion should be treated like any other political force in society, and not one requiring special protections or immunities.